A yawning gap exists between the poorest and richest areas of England when it comes to young people's chances of attending university - but the division is starting to narrow, according to a major new analysis.
Just 19 per cent of teenagers in the most deprived parts of England enter higher education compared with 57 per cent in the most privileged areas, says the study by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which examines trends over the past 15 years.
However, Hefce found that participation rates among young people in deprived areas are now rising more rapidly than they are in the most advantaged parts.
Young people living in the most disadvantaged areas of England are now 30 per cent more likely to enter higher education than they were five years ago, while those from the most advantaged areas are only about 5 per cent more likely to.
Hefce has been measuring the proportion of 18- and 19-year-olds entering higher education since the 1990s.
Its last major study on the topic, published in 2005, found that while the numbers attending university increased between 1994 and 2000, the proportion of poorer students hardly changed at all, with regional inequalities firmly entrenched.
This led to claims that the Government's efforts to widen participation were failing.
However, the new report, Trends in Young Participation in Higher Education: Core Results for England, which covers 1994-2010, says that since the mid-2000s there has been an "unusually rapid" increase in the proportion of young people entering higher education from the most disadvantaged areas, defined as those with the lowest participation rates.
"Compared with the very slight changes in the previous decade, these are big movements," said Mark Corver, senior analyst at Hefce's Analytical Services Group.
"Our work has shown that this matches trends in other statistics, including increases in GCSE performance in the same areas."
Meanwhile, the participation rate among men - which has remained static for years - has begun to grow.
In the mid-1990s, the participation rate among young men and women was about the same. Over the next ten years, the rate for women increased while that for men remained at about 29 per cent.
Today, about 32 per cent of young men go to university compared with 40 per cent of young women.
Dr Corver said the increase had been particularly marked in the most disadvantaged areas, where the gender divide had been widest.
"In the poorest areas, men are now about five years behind women in terms of participation, whereas at the national level they are a good ten years behind," he said.
Overall, participation among 18- and 19-year-olds in England stands at 36 per cent, up from 30 per cent in 1994-95.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that "on the face of it", the report seemed to contain "unqualified good news".
However, he warned that if the trend of growing demand for higher education was sustained, it may cause problems for universities and the Government in view of the constraints on funding.
"We already had some indications of that last year, with more demand than there were places available. These difficulties are likely to get worse: while the overall size of the young population is set to decline in the next few years, that decline may be more than offset by increased demand, if the trend revealed in this report continues."
David Lammy, the Higher Education Minister, said the figures "illustrate that we are raising aspirations and widening participation".
The Government's Comprehensive Spending Review target is to "increase participation in higher education towards 50 per cent of those aged 18 to 30, with growth of at least a percentage point every two years to 2010-11".
According to the most recent government statistics, participation among this wider age group stood at 43 per cent in 2007-08.